Deck Creator Forum — World Spirit Tarot (Part 1)
The following is a new entry in my blog’s “Deck Creator Forum.” I have done some deck reviews on this blog, but this is different. In this feature I have asked various deck creators to say a few words (or paragraphs, actually) about their Tarot deck. By the way, you too can contribute to this discussion. If you have this deck and have experience using it, please leave comments about your use of it.
Recently, I posted an annotated list of links to my Deck Creator Forum blog posts. Afterward, I realized that I had not done an interview with the creator of one of my favorite Tarot decks, the World Spirit Tarot. (You can read my review of that deck here.) That deck was originally published by Llewellyn in 2001, but since they let it go out of print, the artist, Lauren Onça O’Leary, has self published it. Although I generally use my own deck for readings now, there are a few others that I still sometimes use, and the WST is one of them. So, as you can imagine, I was quite happy when I asked Lauren if she would do this interview and she said Yes.
James: Creating a Tarot deck means creating 78 works of art, which I know from experience is a rather daunting challenge. What inspired you to create this deck?
Lauren: At 21, I was undergoing a spiritual initiation. One of the requirements was that I undertake mastery of a system of divination. It could be anything: runes, haruspicy, the pendulum. Being an artist reared in an arts culture, the visual, iconic tradition of the tarot was the clear choice for me. I never intended at the start to publish it. I was stymied by learning from the Little White Books and decided on a multi-year research and DIY project to make my own well-informed but multicultural and subcultural deck. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to follow it through, as 13 was the most pieces in series I had ever done. Fortifying my resolve, I undertook the most demanding art project of my life to date, this tarot. Several years in, folks suggested I find a publisher and share the fruits of my work. I was a punky kid working at the food co-op at that point and didn’t even know such a thing was possible. We used actual letters and slides! There was no internet in my world.
J: Did you have a theme in mind for this deck when you created it, and if so, what would you like to say about it?
L: Authenticity. I was initially quite put off by the ‘perfectly Eurocentric’ people depicted in most tarot decks of that time. (There has not yet been an explosion of cultural diversity in tarot art.) My goal was to make a deck steeped in the RWS and Thoth traditions but with a spirit of inclusivity. I wanted an authentic representation of the real people in my life – all ages, brownish people and white-ish people, thin people and Zaftig people, gay, straight, and ambiguous, with the gate open to inspiration from many cultures.
J: Most modern Tarot decks fall into one of three “camps” — Tarot de Marseille, Rider Waite Smith, or Thoth. Which of those is your deck most closely aligned with, and why did you choose that “type” of deck?
L: This is definitely an RWS deck although inwardly I feel the influence of the Thoth deck. At the beginning of my research I was skeptical of Pixie Smith’s euro-fantasy art. But the more I learned about the depths of the images, the more brilliant I deemed her interpretations to be. I was awed by her capacity to sum up a plethora of meanings in one image. Also having explored some of the more ‘feminist’ decks in my research years, I was not impressed with their re-visioning of the art and meanings. I opted to bring a progressive sensibility to tradition rather than go my own way completely.
J: I believe you used a linoleum block printing process for the art in the WST. (Is that the right term?) Block print art was the norm for Tarot decks hundreds of years ago since that’s how they were able to mass produce decks. But it is a rather unique medium now. (The black and white Light and Shadow Tarot is the only other modern deck that comes to mind.) How did you learn to do that and why did you decide to use that process? What else would you like to say about it?
L: I was blessed to grow up in a rustic and historically art-rich environment in Folly Cove, Gloucester, Ma. This was the home of an inspiring textile collective from the 1930s – 1960s called the Folly Cove Designers. It was a collection of local folk of all professions — from sculptor to housewife to lobsterman — who committed to rigorous artistic study and then worked together with linoleum block printing (a kind of carved relief printing) to make nature and whimsy-inspired textiles. The original designers were mostly retired or deceased when I hit my teens, but their legacy was that as a kid I still knew home-makers who continued making prints of nature as a domestic art, and I actually played with the old presses, massive elegant car-sized dinosaurs of ancient steel and iron, in the barns and sheds of my childhood. We used to stand on those things and play with their massive plates and levers. I grew up in the midst of that, never questioning. As an adult and a committed print-maker on my own, I later realized the incredible serendipity and grace of it. With a weird hillbilly mix of musicians and fisherman and painters and sculptors around me, blockprinting was always my primary means of artistic expression. It’s what I know how to do.
The Light and Shadow tarot came out about 4 years into my project, and I was panicked about another deck ‘like mine’ coming out, until I realized how different in feeling the images are from my own. It is a wonderful deck, midway between Thoth and RWS and on the short list of decks that I use myself.
J: I really like the way that this process sometimes yields such large amounts of black areas. (The Eight of Wands and Two of Swords are a couple of notable examples.) Besides adding “weight” (for lack of a better term) to the image, it really makes the colored areas pop.
Something else I particularly like about the art on this deck is that it goes beyond being multicultural and multiracial. It is sometimes “trans-racial,” if I might coin a term. What I mean by that is the fact that some of the people are a non-human color (for example, the Hanged Man, Temperance, and Sage of Cups). This takes them out of the realm of racial types all together. This is a really nice change from the predominantly WASP look of the people in many other Tarot decks. This cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity makes your deck a bit more universal and more “accessible” to people of color. How did you make the decision to do that, and what kinds of reactions have you gotten about it from users of your deck?
L: Those large dark areas are a result of the carving process being reductive: the artist takes away material until the image is revealed . In this way it’s almost a sculptural art medium. I needed the deck to ring with authenticity, with people-like-us-ness. And I urgently wanted to dismantle the horrible out-dated notions of race that had accrued to the suits. For example, pentacles being for people of African heritage, due to them being allegedly ‘closer to the earth’ and swords being for Aryans, the ‘logical big-idea’ people. That regressive racialism had to stop. And I opted to ‘normalize’ depictions of skin color by scattering folks of different races, class, gender, and experience through the deck. Including blue people.
J: There are some very interesting little nuggets on some of the cards that really make this deck your own. For example, I like the dream catcher hanging in the window in the Nine of Pentacles. I’d like to ask you about a few others, to illustrate the point. First, there is what looks like a unicorn in the background of the Five of Cups. Can you say why that’s there? What symbolism did you intend with it?
L: Every artist is flattered when someone pays that much attention to the details of our work! I intend to make a pocket guide to the symbolism of each card one of these days. One theme that comes to mind is the equine critters in the five of cups and four of swords. They both stand as reminders that when the querent is ready to see, and seize, them, opportunities to change circumstance await. Likewise, the mouse that appears in both the Four of cups and Strength speaks for the all Important things that can be little but so vital, like Intuition and conscience. I find it interesting that in my sometimes controversial original edition Ten of Pentacles card, people balk at his lack of pants but never question his big boat or blingtastic earrings. My narrative with this card of legacy and security is this person has clearly ‘arrived’, with a vivid sense of accomplishment, family, poise, leisure, and abundance. Safe, contemplative, having it all, he can go anywhere and do anything. Including putter about skyclad and fabulous in his garden. Nothing says completely relaxed like no-pants yoga. But some folks just find it weirdly disconcerting that the central figure in all this intergenerational activity left behind his britches. (Incidentally, out of deference to folks with abuse issues, in the new edition he now is wearing a little something more than earrings. Sigh.)
J: I mentioned the multiculturalism and trans-racial aspects of this deck. Beyond that, though, there are a few characters in the cards that are mythical. As an example, the Seven of Pentacles features a Satyr. That’s an interesting diversion. Why did you make that choice?
L: No one has ever asked me that! There’s two ways I want to address that.
Yes, it is sort of a multi-species deck too. The animals are not just symbols, they are creatures with personalities. I read once about how some indigenous people thought not of bears and people, being utterly dissimilar in essence, but as bear people and human people; all still people in spite of their appearances. That distinction summed up my perceptions of non-human life ever since.
Also, since I was a kid artist, I’ve drawn part human/part animal goat-like creatures to describe my own struggle to balance gut knowledge and book knowledge, instinct and logic. This was a source of INCREDIBLE angst for me in the first half of my life. In this case, the Seven of Pentacles and the evaluation of the fruit of one’s choices seemed to call for more than a merely scientific decision-making process. The satyr brings his undeniable animal Nature and attunement to that decision-making process. I’ve actually re-tinted this card in the new edition and it looks even more vibrant than ever.
More about this deck in Part 2 of this interview. For now, though, here is some info about ordering this deck:
People can order a copy of this new edition of the WST at http://hardestworkingwomaninshowbusiness.com/tarot/
Also, Lauren is working on an adult coloring book that uses images from the WST deck. See the indiegogo project for that here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-world-spirit-tarot-adult-coloring-book#/story
All images from the World Spirit Tarot deck are © Lauren Onça O’Leary